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Health & Medicine

Sex, Stress, and the Suspension Bridge

A UT Dallas neuroscientist on how changing your perception of pressure can improve your performance at almost everything.
By Ian Robertson |

The capilano suspension bridge over the Capilano River in North Vancouver wobbles and sways as you cross its 450-foot span on flimsy, 5-foot-wide wooden struts attached to swinging wire cables. As you gingerly edge across it, all too aware that the wire handrails are much too low to hold you if you stumble, the river surges 230 feet below you in a deep canyon.

This was the scene for one of psychology’s famous experiments, carried out in 1974. Stationed on the bridge was an attractive female research assistant who stopped passing men and asked if they would answer some questions for a psychology study of the effects of scenic attractions on creativity. They were asked to write a short story.

The same woman then also stopped male passersby on a bridge upriver that was solid and unswaying and asked them the same questions. The researchers discovered that the stories written by the swaying bridge men were packed with a sexual content that was completely lacking in the solid bridge stories. What’s more, the swaying bridge men were much more likely to try to make personal contact with the research assistant after the study than the solid bridge ones.

I have known vaguely about this research for most of my career. And though there have been some criticisms of its methodology, when I dug into more recent similar research, I became convinced that the Capilano Suspension Bridge results were not a fluke.

For example, at a Texas fairground, psychologists had roller-coaster riders rate how attracted they were to opposite-sex photo portraits before and after the ride. The flush of fear as they stepped unsteadily from the ride sweetened the attractiveness of the strangers—or “love at first fright,” as the authors called it.

In trying during these past three decades to work out if and how stress can make you stronger, I have never made any link between that and the swinging bridge study. Gradually, however, I started to look more deeply into what lies behind it.

my first thought was that the fear you are likely to feel on a high, swaying bridge might be an aphrodisiac—perhaps releasing a sexual energy fueling a primitive, life-affirming response to a mortal threat. But what I knew about the effects of stress and anxiety didn’t square with that view. On the contrary, fear tends to inhibit sexuality via the stress hormone cortisol. It triggers the “fight or flight” response, resulting in beating heart, rapid breathing, pale and sweating skin, and churning stomach.

These responses are all designed to help you survive. Hearts race and lungs heave so that there is plenty of oxygen in your arms and legs, blood drains from the skin to give fuel to your leg muscles, digestion gets put on hold, and there is a deep primal impulse to expel the contents of your bladder and bowel to give you less weight and hence more mobility.

And one other bodily function gets put on hold, too—sex. Sexual fulfillment is not a priority when survival is in question, so fear also dampens down sexual activity and sexual function in a major way. Few things can eliminate a man’s erection more quickly than a severe fright, and both men’s and women’s sexual hormone levels are turned down by stress.

So, fear is not itself an aphrodisiac. How to explain the swinging bridge findings? Then I remembered—indeed, how could I have forgotten?—one of the very first papers I read when I began to study psychology, a 1962 classic by Stanley Schachter of Columbia University and Jerome Singer titled “Cognitive, Social, and Physiological Determinants of Emotional State.”

These researchers injected either adrenaline or a placebo into volunteers who were left in a waiting room with either a good-natured, joyful companion who joked and played around or an angry, disgruntled person who complained and angrily tore up the lengthy questionnaires they had been asked to complete.

Some of those who were injected with adrenaline were told the symptoms to expect—shaky hands, pounding heart, quicker breathing, and flushed-feeling face. They had an explanation for their symptoms—an injected drug. But others were told to expect quite different—wrong—symptoms, including numbness in their feet and itching. These people didn’t have an explanation for the adrenaline-induced symptoms that would come on after a few minutes.

And it was this latter group, with these unexplained symptoms, who were affected by what the other person in the waiting room—in reality, an actor stooge of the researcher—was doing. The ones who had a happy, contented companion said that they felt happy and excited, while the people with the angry, complaining neighbor said that they felt angry.

What this famous study showed was this: many different emotions have similar bodily symptoms. When we are angry, our pulses race, we breathe faster, we feel our faces flush, and our skin becomes sweaty, but when we are happily excited we also breathe faster, feel our faces flush, and our skin becomes sweaty. And other emotions cause these general symptoms of increased adrenaline, too—including fear and sexual arousal.

Standing on a swinging bridge, then, doesn’t in itself make people sexually aroused. What standing on that fragile, swaying structure high above the torrent does do is make people feel a little frightened. The fear then increases adrenaline—just as Schachter and Singer’s injection did—which in turn causes these general symptoms of arousal, racing pulse, fast breathing, etc.

The question now is: how do our minds interpret these sensations? The answer from that classic 1962 study is clear. My mind uses the context to explain the symptoms to itself. In the case of the young men speaking to an attractive female on the bridge, the context is an attractive girl. So, the men on the bridge, feeling their racing pulses, churning stomachs, and sweaty skin, look to the context to make sense of them. And that context is an attractive female showing a personal interest in them.

The old joke about two psychiatrists meeting on the street and one saying to the other, “How am I feeling?” isn’t so far off the mark when it comes to how our emotions work. Our minds ask that question of our bodies all the time. But because bodily feelings are so similar across different emotions, we often don’t get a clear answer and so have to deduce the emotion from the context.

This helped me understand something else about stress and resilience: how you interpret the symptoms of stress can have a big effect on how stressed you actually become. When he said, “The day I’m not nervous is
the day I quit,” the golfer Tiger Woods was turning anxiety on its head, changing it from, well, anxiety to—what? A sort of adrenaline rush for his game? It wasn’t just rethinking an ambiguous emotional state into a less toxic one. Tiger Woods seemed to be going further. He was turning the toxic into a positive tonic.

This is quite an achievement, because anxiety can really mess you up. Apart from winding up your peripheral nervous system in an unpleasant way, it makes everything seem worryingly uncertain and sabotages your feeling of being in control; this in turn saps your confidence, which actually makes you perform badly. It also clouds your mind and weakens your memory, both of which undermine your self-confidence and ability even more. This in turn leads to a vicious cycle of anxiety.

But is there any way of not just breaking the vicious cycle but turning it into a virtuous one? Is there any science to back up Tiger Woods’ belief that stressed people can turn anxiety on its head and use it to their advantage? Indeed there is, I discovered.

We don’t always read our own emotions accurately, as the swinging bridge study had shown. Even if you ask people to rate the attractiveness of people of the opposite sex after they’ve been to the gym, on average they think they’re more attractive compared to when they hadn’t had exercise. The brain’s crude logic runs something like this: “Ooh, my pulse is running high and my face is slightly flushed, so I must really like him/her.” But you can be tricked the other way, too, into regarding negative things as even more unpleasant: “Ooh, my pulse is racing, so I really don’t like him/her.”

So while anxiety is not a pleasant feeling, it shares many of the same characteristics as emotions like sexual arousal and anger. I had studied Schachter and Singer’s findings as an undergraduate at Glasgow University in 1972, but it wasn’t until more than four decades later that I saw the logical therapeutic outcome of their discovery, in a 2014 study that showed how it’s possible to harness anxiety and turn it into that most positive and energizing of emotions, excitement.

Skeptics may draw breath because the “treatment” in the study I am going to describe was so very simple, but it was published in one of the most respected experimental psychology publications, the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Alison Brooks of the University of Pennsylvania put volunteers into various nerve-racking situations including: singing karaoke in front of strangers; public speaking; doing “IQ-test” arithmetic problems under time pressure. But before each activity, they spoke out loud a single sentence to themselves: “I feel anxious,” “I feel calm,” or “I feel excited.” They all wore heart-rate monitors and, in order to make them aware of their bodily symptoms, how fast their hearts were beating was displayed prominently to them during the experiment.

The results of this “treatment” were exactly in line with what Tiger Woods said. People who told themselves that they felt excited not only felt more self-confident but also performed better, objectively measured, at all the tasks—singing, public speaking, even arithmetic. The opposite was true for those who said, “I feel anxious.”

Saying “I feel calm,” on the other hand, had no effect at all, either on performance or self-confidence. I scratched my head. How could a single sentence influence performance and self-confidence so much?

Then the answer jumped out at me: calmness is the opposite state to anxiety—slow versus fast pulse, relaxed versus tense muscles, still versus churning stomach, dry versus sweaty skin. But excitement’s symptoms are almost identical to those of anxiety—higher pulse and heart rate, facial flushing, churning stomach, and so on. So it should be easier to change from anxiety to excitement than from anxiety to calmness.

The swinging bridge experiment told us that emotions change if you change their context. But if a person with a fear of public speaking is waiting drenched in nervous sweat beside the podium about to give a public speech, the context is fixed. She can’t change it. Or can she? The most important context for any emotion is inside her head. Her mind can create its own context.

And that, I suddenly understood, was what the people in Brooks’ experiment were doing. By saying to themselves, “I am excited,” they were conjuring a new mental context for themselves which, like the swinging bridge, changed one emotion, anxiety, into another, excitement.

But why should that make you perform better at singing, speaking, arithmetic, or, in Tiger Woods’ case, golf? Brooks and her team had found at least part of the answer.

If you are about to do something that makes you nervous—say, go for an interview for promotion at work, or speak out about a controversial topic at a public meeting—then there are two broad mindsets you can adopt, threat or challenge. A threat mindset focuses your mind on the possible downsides of the situation—making a fool of yourself, for example—while a challenge mindset turns your attention to the upsides—making your name, impressing others, or just doing a good job, for that matter.

Brooks discovered that saying “I am excited” made people adopt a challenge rather than a threat mindset. Those who declared themselves excited were more likely to see even singing for an audience as an opportunity for success rather than failure.

Of course, the answer is approach and avoidance. A challenge mindset expects reward while a threat mindset anticipates punishment. Challenge maps on to the approach system, and threat to the avoidance system. Saying “I am excited” in the face of nervous arousal switches your brain into approach mode by creating a challenge or opportunity mindset. The approach mode then increases dopamine activity, which focuses your attention and sharpens you mentally; that biochemical boost in turn sharpens your performance in math, singing, public speaking—or, indeed, golf.

Ian Robertson, Ph.D., is the T. Boone Pickens Distinguished Scientist at the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas. Excerpted with permission from The Stress Test: How Pressure Can Make You Stronger and Sharper (Bloomsbury, 2016).

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